Leadership is neither a matter of rank nor a solo affair, study finds
May 15, 2014
For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, +1-718-398-7642 or +1-917-903-9287, firstname.lastname@example.org
It may be hard to believe, given the size of the popular
literature on how to become a leader, but in recent years scholars
have increasingly challenged the traditional view of leadership as
an individual trait in favor of conceiving it as a shared property
of group members.
"Power in groups is traditionally conceptualized in reference to
a rank ordering of individuals," begins a paper in the
current Academy of Management Journal, adding that "the prevailing wisdom
is that stable power hierarchies promote more effective groups by
providing order that helps facilitate collective decision-making."
The study then proceeds to take issue with this conventional view
through an elaborate behavioral experiment that is supplemented by
interviews with members of a variety of work groups, ranging from
an editorial team in book publishing to a sales task force at a
national tile and stone company to a top management team at a
multinational insurance and financial-services corporation.
What emerges is that, rather than flowing from a single leader,
power in contemporary teams tends to shift from one team member to
another as "situational demands and uncertainties shift." This team
power structure is called a "heterarchy" in contrast to a
"hierarchy." The term is borrowed from neurobiological
research on the organization of the brain.
The new study suggests not only that power-shifting in teams is
consistent with orderly process, (something often doubted in the
past), but that it increases group creativity - provided, that is,
power shifts are perceived by team members as legitimate. In the
words of the study, "If the shift in power expression is not also
accompanied by a shift in legitimacy for the new power holder, the
positive effect on team creativity disappears."
"As far as we know, this is the first research to find that
power-shifting not only is nicely democratic but pays off in
enhanced creativity," comments Federico Aime, an associate
professor of management at Oklahoma State University, who carried
out the study with Stephen Humphrey of Pennsylvania State
University, D. Scott Derue of the University of Michigan, and
Jeffrey B. Paul of the University of Tulsa..
A surprising feature of the experiment which engendered this
finding is that the enhancement in creativity occurred through the
power shifts themselves and the willingness of team members to
accept them, rather than through any obvious talents of team
members. Indeed, how power shifted among team members in the course
of the experiment was largely decided on a random basis.
And while the cross-functional team structures that are the
study's primary focus are most typical of middle or lower
management, the study's authors assert that "there is no reason to
presume that [power-shifting] is limited to only those team types,"
and that it may be equally applicable to top-management teams.
Indeed, one of the work groups interviewed in the research was the
top management team of a multinational corporation, one member of
which cited the sudden increase in assertiveness of the company's
chief financial officer with the onset of the recent recession. "It
was suddenly evident that cash was king," he recalled, whereupon
the CFO "was suddenly dramatically more emphatic than he had ever
been," surprising everyone with "his very emphatic e-mails and
engagement in meetings.",
The experiment that is at the heart of the study involved 131
business-school students who were divided into 45 teams, each
consisting of four or five individuals -- two or three subjects
and, unbeknownst to them, two trained research confederates whose
primary job was to track interactions among group members. Teams
were assigned to perform three tasks in connection with a rollout
of a new cell phone to college students - 1) produce a marketing
plan, 2) design a mock Web site that would appeal to the target
population, and 3) create a presentation to introduce the Web site
and marketing plan to the top executives of the supposed cell-phone
company. The team that came up with the most creative rollout, as
judged by a panel of marketing experts, would receive a $500
At the start of the experiment, participants were asked to
complete a questionnaire, which, they were told, would be used to
create a "marketing expertise index" that would provide a basis for
task leadership. Unknown to the subjects, however, the index
ratings, which were posted on a board, had nothing to do with
actual talents or expertise of team members but were purely
arbitrary. One of the confederates was rated highest for skills
needed for the first task; a subject was randomly chosen to gather
information for the second task; and another subject was rated
highest (again arbitrarily) in the requisite skills for the third
For all tasks, confederates were instructed to go along with the
team and not to propose anything particularly creative. Mainly they
were to monitor how power expressions (for example, changing a time
deadline or telling other members what to do) shifted from one to
another member of the group as it moved from one task to the next.
How legitimate team members judged these shifts to be was
revealed by having each rate (on a scale of 1 to 7) whether
one teammate or another "had the right to influence others in this
part of the project."
As the professors hypothesized, leadership did shift among team
members from one task to another. The amount of shifting, combined
with the extent to which shifts were viewed as legitimate, was
significantly correlated with group creativity.
Why should this have been, given the bogus nature of the
expertise ratings? That the exact chemistry involved remains
elusive is suggested by the title of the study: "The Riddle of
Asked what lessons could be drawn from the study on how to get
the most out of groups, Prof. Aime cites several:
- Teams are likely to operate better when there are
a number of members with leadership potential (fears of rivalry
notwithstanding) than when power is a solo affair.
- It is not only important that team members have
diverse skills and resources but that everyone knows what they are,
so that they can be fully leveraged.
- Internal power expressions among team members
should shift as appropriate.
- Team membership should be fluid, with members
entering and exiting as necessary to meet shifting situations
The study, "The Riddle of Heterarchy: Power Transitions in Cross-Functional Teams," is in the April/May issue of
the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is
published every other month by the Academy, which, with more than
18,000 members in 115 countries, is the largest organization in the
world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's
other publications are The Academy of Management Review,
Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning
and Education, and Academy of Management
Annals. A sixth publication, Academy of
Management Discoveries, is currently accepting
submissions and will begin publishing in January 2015.